The Year-Round Green Thumb

Gardening, Home & Family, Odd Jobs, People
on November 24, 2002

In November, when the dazzling colors in most flower beds are a distant memory, Marie and Keith Fowler still are cutting and selling beautiful blooms at their local farmer’s market.

They take the whimsy of flowers very seriously and have made them more than a spring and summer hobby. Aided by two greenhouses, grow lights that mimic sunlight, and eight large flower beds, the Fowlers of Belchertown, Mass., (pop. 12,968) indulge their passion for flowers practically year-round. They grow annuals, perennials, and herbs to create bright fresh bouquets, dried arrangements, and flavorings for Marie’s specially made vinegars, oils, and mustards.

Indeed, cold weather—even brutal New England winters—don’t keep Marie from her flowers. “I do all my ordering in December and get the seeds in January,” Marie says. Thousands of seeds are planted in February and germinated in their house under grow lights.

In February through about mid-March, seedlings are nurtured in their heated greenhouse (the other is unheated). When the weather warms, most are transplanted to waiting flowerbeds; others are placed in tiny pots and sold for $1 each at the farmer’s market.

Like Marie, most gardeners who own hobby greenhouses grow from seed, says Thomas Eckert, president of the National Hobby Greenhouse Association.

Eckert, whose third and current greenhouse measures 48 by 22 feet, has had greenhouses since 1978 at his home in Dillsburg, a central Pennsylvania community of 2,063. “I’ve always lived in a country setting and I like to see plants grow,” he says. “It came down to economics … I can’t afford to buy flats and flats of plants (at a garden center), but I can get several flats out of one pack of seeds.”

He also uses the greenhouse for overwintering—housing outside plants, such as ferns or potted annuals that he wants to keep rather than losing them to winter’s freezing temperatures. Some plants have lasted 15 years.

“I enjoy the quiet times in the greenhouse in the wintertime,” Eckert says. “It’s fun to putter around in there.”

He trims and doctors overwintering plants infested with disease or insects and plants seeds to get a head start on spring. “Before you know it,” he says, “it’s spring again.”

At the Fowler home, is it ever.

The Fowlers are transforming the once-overgrown back yard of their large white farmhouse, part of which dates back to 1843, into a pastoral, color-filled landscape. An herb garden contains basil, lavender, and rosemary. Another grows primarily flowers for drying: cock’s comb, strawflowers, sunflowers, and Keith’s dahlias—the only flower he grows. Others are filled with annuals and perennials such as lilacs, butterfly bushes, foxglove, asters, and assorted grasses.

Tending the flowers is only part of this very busy hobby: Beds must be built; compost piles created; seeds bought and planted; greenhouses stocked; seedlings transplanted; flowers fertilized, harvested, and arranged; and the truck loaded for the farmer’s market.

“It’s a pretty serious commitment,” Marie says.

‘I always loved flowers’

Her Italian heritage accounts for at least part of Marie’s love for raising beauty from the earth’s soil, she says. Her Grandpa Rocco grew acres of tomatoes for his extended family, and her grandmother preserved enough for an entire year for the whole family. “I think seeing his love and the sharing with the garden really kind of made me want to do something like that,” Marie says.

Marie began exploring her gardening roots once she married Keith and they bought a house with a bit of land. “I didn’t grow vegetables because the property we had was very shady and had horrible soil and any attempt to grow vegetables was just really a disaster,” she says. “But I always loved flowers.”

The turning point came about 15 years ago when they bought their second home, with its sunny yard and good soil. “I wanted a small cutting garden and (Keith) … rototilled a huge area for me as a birthday present,” she says. “He does everything huge. He put a big fence around it and said, ‘Okay, here you go.’”

Marie enrolled in the horticultural program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she works in the registrar’s office. “I took courses one by one while I was working,” she says. “I learned how to grow.”

She planted, cultivated, and raised blossoms for two years before deciding, in 1990, to try selling them at the Amherst Farmer’s Market. She was surprised at how quickly her zinnias, cosmos, and bachelor’s buttons sold. “It was kind of infectious,” she remembers.

To minimize labor, Marie planted mostly perennials (plants that return and bloom year after year) and filled in the rest of the garden space with annuals (which last just one season). “Once you get perennials in, you don’t work quite so hard at planting,” she says.

She also quickly set herself apart from other market vendors who also sold flowers. “They generally were just selling cut flowers, not in bouquets,” she says. “Another one of the courses I took was floral designing, and I got lots of practice. I knew I could make bouquets, and this would set me apart from other flower growers.”

Not for long, though, she says with a wry smile. “Everybody who sells flowers just sells bouquets now.”

Doing her homework

Turning flowers into bouquets is work. Keith, who handles maintenance for a real estate agency, primarily builds their flower beds and maintains compost piles. “We do a lot of organic farming,” he says.

“He’s the one who has the vision. He can look at the yard and say, ‘Here’s where the next one’s going to go.’ He has the big picture,” Marie says. “I amble over to look at the bed and say, ‘Here’s what I want to do with it.’”

It was Keith who envisioned what their current home on 47 mostly wooded acres could become. When they bought the property two years ago, Keith immediately, with his tractor and backhoe, cleared the large, overgrown backyard area of sumac, thicket, brambles, and poison ivy, creating an inviting, lovely environment.

Marie has filled the back yard with strategically grown cutting flowers. “A lot of perennials that you grow from seed don’t flower the first year, but I try to select some that will flower the first year, combined with those that won’t, so I have something to work with for bouquets for the year.”

She also must become familiar with each plant. “You really have to do your homework because they have different germination requirements,” she says. “Some like cool to start, some hot. Some need dark, some light, some grow slowly, some fast.”

She also must alternate planting times to ensure a constant flow of flowers for market. Marie staggered a batch of 150 Oriental lily bulbs, which take about 90 days to mature, so they would last each week through the end of November.

What may sound like a lot of work to some is pure enjoyment for Marie—so much that she continually tries to stretch her knowledge. “I like to challenge myself each year and grow some things I know are going to be difficult,” she says.

Marie admits it’s sometimes a little difficult to snip the blooms. “But that’s the beauty of it, especially with annuals. Lots of them are ‘cut and come again,’ like with zinnias. You need to cut them because the more you cut, the more they come back.

“With perennials, it’s not the same, because you usually get one bloom each year and that’s it. That’s why I really like to keep a combination of annuals and perennials. A lot of serious gardeners don’t want to deal with annuals, but they do have pluses.”

The effect her flowers has on her customers makes the extra effort worth it, Marie says. “I just really get a kick out of bringing a smile to people’s faces when they see the flowers and when they see what we can do,” Marie says. “I love to make people happy, and I think when they see what we do, it definitely brings a smile to people’s faces. I guess that’s the key.

“I want to be happy and that’s my goal,” she says. “That’s what it’s all about.”